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Walter Nilsson’s Unique Uno-Wheel History and Eight Intriguing Images

In 1952 “Life”magazine photographer Loomis Dean conducted an impressive photo shoot in Los Angeles for an article in the publication about Walter Nilsson’s unique “Uno-Wheel.” Occasionally one of the photos will surface today and the most famous of all is the shot of Nilsson (below) with a cigarette dangling from his mouth while at the gas pumps at a filling station in Los Angeles.

In earlier times according to Daniel Strohl at Hemmings Daily “Nilsson was a vaudeville unicyclist best known for publicity stunts involving unicycling up and down the faces of monuments. In 1934, he rode coast-to-coast across the United States on a unicycle in 117 days.”

  • The well-known “Life” magazine photo referred to earlier in the text of Nilsson smoking at the gas pumps with the “Uno-Wheel.” Note the construction of the seat that appears to be repurposed.

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  • 1930s photo that may have been taken at the time when the construction of the machine was finished. Note the hard rubber tire, larger fuel tank, and the vertical single cylinder engine. AACA Library.

Nilsson claimed to have built the “Uno-Wheel” by himself, and if that is, in fact, the case, the showman must have started constructing it before or just after his cross-county adventure on a unicycle. Different sources date it as being finished in either 1935 or ’36.

Until now all that we have been able to find were a few of the “Life” photo shoot images. The AACA Library and Research Center has in its collection an informational sheet that dates the machine and contains photos (above and below) of Nilsson posing with it. The balance of the photographs in this post are via contributor Benjamin Ames.

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The informational sheet from the AACA Library contained the photo (above) and stated it took Nilsson ten years to perfect the Uno-Wheel, which would date the image to just after the war. The “Special built pneumatic tire, 5 foot x 3 1/2 inch, that cost $800” had been added, the engine was replaced, and the fuel tank was reduced in depth or replaced with another, note the license plate.

The informational sheet also claimed it was: “Powered by a single-cylinder motor developing 12 h.p. (possibly built by Indian) Capable of speeds of 1 to 100 miles per hour (unlikely based on the inherent instability of mono wheels and the small engine size). Has three speeds – makes 90 miles per gallon. Steering is accomplished by a secret device (note all the covers below the seat) which allow the rider to sit upright while the wheel leans in turning. Cost of experiments and construction about $6000.”

Dan Strohl also found that the Uno-Wheel had survived to at least the late 1970s when a reference was made to it in the “Motor Cycle News”. At that time the machine was still in Los Angeles but had been fitted with a different engine. Hopefully, it has survived? If anyone can add more to this story, please let us know.

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15 responses to “Walter Nilsson’s Unique Uno-Wheel History and Eight Intriguing Images

  1. What an idea, but looks just as dangerous if not more, than two-wheeled cycles. I’ll given him credit for being different.

  2. I like the photo with the rider wearing a helmet, boots, and…a long tie! I can only imagine the Isadora Duncan-esque potential.

    The whole thing, of course, also brings new meaning to “panic braking.”

    • No kidding! At least it wouldn’t skid during “panic braking.” It would just go into “Wile E. Coyote Mode.”

  3. It seems likely that this was a Motoruota, made in Italy. That outfit was going strong – well, as strong as it could, I guess, in the early ’30s. Photos of MotoRuotas taken in 1931-33 show the “secret steering mechanism” that was covered by the curved aluminum shroud in the Nilsson photos.

    Walter Nilsson was a fascinating individual who had a long career of trick unicycle and bicycle riding, stretching from as early as 1927 through at least 1961, just 3 years before is death at age 66. He performed all over the world, executed the remarkable 1934 cross-country unicycle trip, appeared in vaudeville, the Broadway “Helzapoppin'” revue, and on television. (I particularly like the photo of him on the tall unicycle with feet instead of a wheel.)

    However, being a trick cyclist all his life doesn’t line up with the engineering and fabrication expertise needed to create this cool machine. A man named Gerdes was making the news in 1931, touring the world on a Motoruota. Surely Nilsson was aware of this, and decided he should have one to make his unicycle presence even more remarkable.

    The earliest newspaper mentions of him with the monowheel appear in June 1935. At that time, his test run was at 18 mph in second gear, with the machine still running its solid tire. It was expected to do 100 (hmm) with its upcoming pneumatic tire. That was to cost $800 , close to $15,000 in today’s dollars, an astonishing amount for depression years.

    He advertised it for sale in 1961, when he was liquidating his significant collection of antique bicycles. It was probably bought by Jumpin’ Joe Gerlach, who performed with it in car spectaculars in 1974, looking much like it did in Nilsson’s time, even down to the seat with the curved brace. Gerlach apparently later “updated” the monowheel visually, adding fairings, paint, and a seat that matched ’70s show car tropes. An existing color photo of it looks dramatic and modern, but the aluminum shrouds for the distinctive Motoruota steering/banking mechanism are still clearly visible.

    Joe Gerlach may still be living; his son Brad is a significant figure in the surfing world. Perhaps one of them would know about the machine’s current whereabouts.

    • Thanks, Kelly.

      One of the things I love about this site is the knowledge of the commentators. I’ve taken part in some great conversations here.

  4. The photo of him at a service station with a cigarette in his mouth was quite common during those days and not given a second thought. At the time of the photo he was having air put into the tire as it looks noticeably flat

  5. Motoruotas seem to be very common (if one can said that), in those days. I saw photos of little ones with kids at the “wheel”(handlebar?).A french manufacturer also was popular by the 30s.And yes at the Museum of retrotechnoligies the lots of pics.

  6. I would think it would be more comfortable – not to mention less complicated mechanically – for the driver to simply tilt a along with the wheel, much like a motorcyclist rather than having to brace oneself against the centrifugal force of a turn while astride that power unit.

    I also wonder if, while traveling at some speed, one came to an abrupt stop – say that tire got wedged in a streetcar track – would the driver start whizzing around the inside of the wheel?

  7. You might imagine running into a wall as an experiment. I think the rider would stay in position, since they don’t have any rotational inertia.

    The worse problem with these is that you can’t apply the brake very strongly. As soon as the rider gets too much of a grip on the wheel with the brakes, the entire carriage becomes connected to the wheel and then the rider does start rotating, while the machine is still rolling. The official term for this in the monowheel community is “gerbilling.”

  8. I love Walt’s casual demeanor with the cigarette in his mouth at the gas pumps. Ah, those were the days. Rather scary .

  9. Look up “The Strange Story of Vehicles With Insufficient Wheels” for a historical perspective on the many monowheels hatched over the years.

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